The federal government will do more to protect people with disabilities during natural disasters and public health emergencies under legislation signed into law in June.
“No American should ever feel like they might be left behind or forgotten when disaster strikes,” said the bill’s co-sponsor U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I). “By including people with disabilities as advisors during disaster planning and policy development, this bill ensures that the unique needs of this vulnerable community will be included.”
The Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness and Advancing Innovation Act mandates the creation of a national advisory committee that will review federal policies and issue recommendations for making inclusive emergency preparedness plans. The bill also includes technical training assistance for local governments, the Red Cross and other key players in the planning process.
The new law comes on the heels of a landmark report by the National Council on Disability documenting the plight of people with disabilities during disasters in 2017 and 2018, focusing on Hurricanes Florence and Michael in fall 2018.The report highlighted the unnecessarily institionalization of people with disabilities as a result of these disasters, either because more community based options were wiped out, shelters were inaccessible, or the practice of using institutions as a dumping ground for temporary relocations, among other systematic failures.
The same month, the Government Accountability Office released an extensive report that similarly found that people with disabilities and the elderly overwhelmingly face challenges obtaining safe shelters and recovery assistance in the wake of natural disasters.
Although there are no specific federal regulations concerning emergency preparedness and people with disabilities, courts in recent years have ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act mandates inclusive emergency planning. Likewise, a number of major cities have reached comprehensive settlements that prioritize similar concerns.
“Effective emergency preparedness and disaster response are a matter of life and death for people with disabilities and older adults,” the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities wrote in a May 31 letter to Congress, urging passage of the bill. “With the passage and implementation of [the bill], people with disabilities and older adults will no longer be disproportionately affected by the disruptions experienced when disaster strikes, and communities will be far better prepared to optimize limited resources and maximize positive outcomes for everyone.”
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